The Lamb

lamb Little Lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Gave thee life & bid thee feed.

By the stream & o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,

Softest clothing wooly bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice:

Little Lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee:

He is called by thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb:

He is meek & he is mild,

He became a little child:

I a child & thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little Lamb God bless thee.

Little Lamb God bless thee.

Summary

This is the companion poem to “The Tyger”. The interior lines of both poems are framed by the refrain. The questions in this poem have answers, though, while those in the “The Tyger” don’t.

The speaker, a child, asks a lamb a series of rhetorical questions, all of which emphasise the soft, tender nature of the lamb and the gentleness of its way of life. The first stanza ends with the central question ‘Little Lamb, who made thee?

In the first stanza, the speaker wonders who the lamb’s creator is; the answer lies at the end of the poem. The accumulated references to the lamb’s creator point to ‘He’ as being Jesus Christ. The speaker says that children and lambs have something in common because they are both ‘called by the name’ of Jesus i.e. they both bear his likeness. The child ends by asking God to bless the lamb.

The Lamb develops the symbolism of shepherd, sheep and lambs encountered in The Shepherd while also introducing the theme of the vulnerability of innocence, and of the incomplete vision of the innocent speaker.

Speaker

The use of a child narrator and of the simple device of a child talking to a lamb produces an impression of naivety and freshness

Language and tone

The tone is gentle and serene. It has a childlike simplicity.

This is a deceptively simple poem, an effect achieved by the use of simple language and repetition. In the second stanza, the effect continues through the child’s play with the lamb. S/he wants to play riddles with it. The reader expects a simple child’s verse.

The poem depends upon the repetition of the question and answer framework. This echoes the question and answer structure of the catechism. Thus the poem is associated with religious instruction. At the same time, it can also be associated with the innocent pleasure of children asking riddles.

Oppositions

The childlike voice also results from the cumulative effect of repeating words associated with gentleness – ‘mead (a lush meadow)’, ‘delight’, ‘softest’, ‘woolly’, ‘tender’, ‘meek’, ‘mild’. These words belong, as we have seen, to the world of innocence. The reader is lulled into accepting this vision of lamb and child. It is only when s/he begins to reflect upon those aspects of the biblical lamb and child not mentioned that it becomes clear that this gentle perspective is attractive, but incomplete.

According to Nelson Hilton:

“The Lamb” moves further along the language acquisition gradient and into a paradigmatic scene of instruction. This evident response to the inspiring child’s request for “a song about a lamb” offers at the least a three-part glee: one for the Lamb as child, the “bonnie lamb” of nursery rhymes and endearment; another for the young sheep also illustrated in the design; and another for the Agnus Dei. But by beginning with a question out of catechism (“Canst thou tell who made thee?” also begins a lesson in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Pt. 2) “The Lamb” tells any who have ears to hear that it has been to Sunday school and encoded one of the most popular of Wesley’s Hymns for Children, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”: Lamb of God, I look to thee Thou shalt my example be; Thou are gentle, meek, and mild, Thou wast once a little child.

This source suggests how the child’s naming or calling, based on the symbolic identifications which ground perception, unselfconsciously reflects her or his indoctrination. Such scenes of instruction show how we cannot talk about naming without entering into the context of power and the imposition of form, whether under the aegis of Louis Althusser’s “interpellation,” Jacques Lacan’s “Name-of-the-Father,” or whatever other theory one uses to situate the never innocent discourse instruction which is “education.” Blake knows as well as Lewis Carroll’s Humpty-Dumpty that the question in naming is “who is to be master,” and the fact of the matter here is that Jesus never calls himself a Lamb.

Too young to formulate distinctions of logic and Logos, the child, like a lamb led to language, gets lost in figural possibilities and in differences between calling oneself and being called. The alteration the “Author & Printer” makes between capitals and lowercase (“He”/”he”, “Lamb”/”lamb”) further evokes the fusion or confusion in the child’s inability to comprehend metaphor, even as the text conveys the child’s joy in the exercise of his or her developing semiotic mastery: “I’ll tell thee, / … I’ll tell thee!” Fresh from instruction, the child tries to pipe on “the same again,” but even as she or he delights gleefully in such empowerment, the insinuated discourses configure that energy for the maintenance of their own forms.

 
The second stanza is not as simple as the first. The child does not present a conventional view of the creator and sees only one aspect of creation and the creator:

So the poem isn’t simply an affirmation of the innocence of the child:

    • It demonstrates the limitations of innocence when it excludes experience
    • It exposes what is tender and gentle as vulnerable and open to danger

The first impression that the poem is focused on the nature of the creator this is misleading. The true focus is on the limitations of the child speaker who represents innocence divorced from experience.

Structure and texture

The poem has a musical quality and can be sung.

It has a simple rhyme scheme : AA BB CC DD AA AA EF GG FE AA

The layout is set up by two stanzas with the refrain: “Little Lamb who made thee?/Dost thou know who made thee?”

The Lamb is in rhymed couplets in a basic trochaic metre. This metre is often found in children’s verse and so enhances the impression of simplicity. The opening and closing couplets of each stanza change by employing a spondee ‘made thee’, which makes them more emphatic.

The preponderance of soft, liquid L and M sounds reinforces the flowing, soft implications of the language.

Imagery and symbolism

Blake uses Christian images that he knew his readers would recognise, but in ways which questioned how the image was commonly understood. Here he uses two images, that of the lamb and the child.

By the stream … an allusion to Psalms 23:1-6, in which God is a shepherd tending his flock and his people are sheep and lambs needing care and protection

For he calls himself a lamb – Jesus is called ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ in John 1:29 and is identified as a sacrificial lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7. The lamb in this context is not cuddly animal but a sacrificial victim.

He is meek and he is mild – In a famous lesson given by Jesus, known as the Beatitudes, the quality of meekness is praised:
‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth’. (Matthew 5:5)

Jesus is portrayed in Peter 1:19 as meek as a lamb when he faces his accusers. Again, the context for this meekness and mildness is the experience of human violence and injustice.

He became a little child – at one level, this is an image of innocence and gentleness. In the Gospels, Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who become like little children in their innocence and humility.

Themes

The nature of innocence and experience

The poem introduces the theme of the vulnerability of innocence and of the incomplete vision of the innocent speaker. The child’s view is limited on account of the absence of awareness of the total reality of human experience.

The child already has some knowledge, perhaps gained from parents. But the poem also celebrates the wonder of the child’s mind.

Limitations of seeing the world in one way

According to Blake, ‘contraries’ are facts about the world and about the nature of the creative force behind it. For example, ferocious power and energy exist alongside what is fragile and tender. Humans falsify their understanding of the creator and of the human beings made ‘in his image’ when one of these dimensions is excluded from the picture. This creates unnecessary questions and produces unhealthy splits between what are understood as forces of good and forces of evil.

The child sees the creator only as like a lamb and a child. The reader knows there are other forces at play in creation that the child cannot see.

God in man’s image

Blake felt that human understanding created a limited vision of the creator, as a projection of human qualities:
Those, like the innocent child here, who see only gentleness and tenderness in nature and in themselves, produce an image of a creator who is mild and gentle but which lacks energy and power.